Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The poem mostly takes place inside Popeye's apartment. Olive tells the story of how Popeye was exiled from the apartment to the country by his father. Sounds like an exciting family drama, but the apartment itself is a scene of middle-class restlessness and boredom. The apartment is a domestic space set apart from the excitement and "thunder" of country.
Line 2: The metaphor in this line compares the size of the apartment to a shoebox. It's really small.
Line 3: To be of "livid hue" means the curtains have a pale or ashen color. People's faces often become livid when they get angry.
Lines 10-11: The poem gives no reason why the apartment should get smaller at this point. Is this a metaphor to describe how the characters feel cramped? Or is the physical size of the apartment actually shrinking? We're dealing with cartoon characters after all – such things are not unheard of.
Line 14: The "number 2 can of spinach" adds to the sense of domestic life inside the apartment. The "number 2" sounds like a reference to some standard size: think number 2 pencil.
Line 18: What the heck is going on in this line? The note says that it doesn't matter whether the apartment is harmful and healthy, complete or damaged – it's now a thing of the past. At least that's our take.
The first stanza compares the poem to a coded message or a puzzle, but the puzzles do not figure prominently in the rest of the poem. Still, the dialogue spoken by the characters always sounds vague and cryptic, as if they were really trying to say something else. And what's with all that scratching: are they trying to send each other secret signals or something?
Line 1: The first line of the poem is ironic because an undecoded message isn't supposed to mean anything, whereas a poem – at least in theory – is.
Line 3: A tangram is a Chinese puzzle with seven pieces that fit together into a larger shape. This light might contain an implicit metaphor to the poem itself, which has – ta da! – seven stanzas.
Lines 16-18: Swee'pea's note sounds like another "undecoded message." Who wrote it? Popeye?
About halfway through the poem, when Olive tells her story, we realize that Popeye is responsible for the strange thunder that seems to fill both the apartment and the country. This spinach-powered thunder has a sickly green thunder. By giving Popeye the ability to create thunder, Ashbery may be drawing a comparison with the ancient Greek god Zeus, who also had the power to throw lightning bolts.
Line 1: The poem opens with an image of Popeye sitting in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Line 8: The phrase "decked out" is ironic. Usually this phrase is used to describe clothing or some other kind of decoration. Wimpy talks about the plains as if they were a big apartment or room.
Line 23: The thunder is personified as loving, when in fact Popeye is the one filled with love for Olive...and yummy yummy spinach.
Lines 37-38: The phrase "domestic thunder" sounds like an oxymoron. "Domestic" by definition must be something that fits inside a household or is associated with household life, but thunder doesn't normally fit inside homes. You'd have to be in a cartoon to find something like that...
The poem tells us very little about this mysterious "country," or even what sense in which the word "country" is being used. Does it mean a nation or a rural landscape? In each stanza, the word has a slightly different meaning. In fact, the title might tell us more about the country than anything else in the poem.
Title: The title is a parody of the title of a European landscape painting. It suggests "country" in the sense of farming.
Line 3: The country is compared metaphorically to the solution to a Chinese puzzle called a tangram.
Line 8: The word "plains" again makes reference to rural or country life. The "plains" are a flat region filled mostly with grasses and smaller plants.
Line 12: The lyric "For this is my country" might be an allusion to the patriotic song "This is My Country," written in 1940.
Line 25: Olives uses a metaphor in describing her former life. She compares "years" to a broken-up musical chord called an "arpeggio."
Lines 26-27: The nature imagery in these lines suggests a wilder, less domesticated country.